The Official Website of Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy

Fun Autry Fact:

Gene tried to play the saxophone when he was a youngster. He finally gave up and turned successfully to the guitar.

News Archive: 2007

Here is a review from The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) for the book Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry by Holly George-Warren.

Fans admired the ambitious Gene Autry
By Bill Ruehlmann
June 3, 2007

SO HOW DID a rather soft-looking, impoverished, high school-dropout Texas boy who couldn't read music, the son of a ne'er-do-well itinerant petty thief with an alcohol problem, become a two-fisted, world-famous, big-box-office singing motion-picture star and Forbes 400 entrepreneur who owned broadcasting stations, big hotels, recording companies and an American League baseball team, developed a $100 million museum, gave $180 million to charity and was still worth $320 million when he checked out at 91?

Author Holly George-Warren
Photo credit: Mark Loete

Because he could.

"Why do I try to keep on makin' money?" Gene Autry mused at the height of his stardom. "Well, I've seen what happens to old Western actors when the rain starts to fall. They get wet, sir.

"Gene's gonna stay dry."

High and dry. Though he developed a serious drinking problem himself. That was in keeping with the other driven qualities of the man; Autry pursued nothing in moderation.

Western aficionado Holly George-Warren provides an engaging, meticulously researched portrait of an American phenomenon with "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry."

Autry always had a day job. First it was farm work. Then, as a teenager, he worked for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, learning telegraphy; that was when his spare-time singing career began to bloom.

He also mastered bookkeeping and accounting by correspondence course, becoming a CPA. He may have been "the original Oklahoma Yodelin' Cowboy" on radio, but from the outset he knew how to take care of business, from handbills to house receipts.

And he never resisted change but embraced and absorbed it, from stage to phonograph to radio to film to TV; as the gigs broadened, he flew his own plane.

Some country boy.

His movies – morality plays as contemporary oaters – captured fans in an era when America needed national verities in its battles against Nazism and communism. Likable, uncomplicated, even a little out of shape, he wasn't John Wayne; that was part of the point.

We could be Gene.

No small legacy. Young Johnny Cash sang Autry songs in the cotton fields. Willie Nelson named a son after him. Shoot, Beatle Ringo Starr admitted, "I was eight years old and wanted to be a cowboy when I saw a Gene Autry movie. I still do."

Autry made a particular point of visiting kids in hospitals. When he stepped from an elevator into a sickroom in his ice-white suit, he embodied the quintessential deus ex machina. In Margaret Boole Downing's "Backward Glances," remembering life hereabouts, you will find a poignant photo of him at bedside in the polio ward of DePaul Hospital.

Gene transcended genre. The enduring versions of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" and "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" are his, as permanent in the American songbook as "Back in the Saddle Again."

Yep, there were Gene Autry comics and Gene Autry brushless shaving cream and Gene Autry hair tonic; he sold hats and boots and Doublemint Gum. The man made money, but he was generous with it. Singer and deejay Johnny Western, who toured with Autry in the 1950s, recalls that the corporate cowboy always kept crisp walking-around money on his person:

"And when these old-timers who were really hurting came up to him – depending on who they were and what their story was – he either reached in his right-hand pocket and peeled off some hundreds or (chose from his left-hand pocket) fifty dollar bills for old rodeo riders or busted up guys or stuntmen that he'd known along the line that came and hit him up.

"They always knew he was a soft touch."

Near the end of this colorful and unsparing account, George-Warren allows herself a little explanatory speculation:

"As much as Gene disliked (his dad) Delbert – he never possessed a photo of himself with his father – with his livestock businesses, constant traveling, and weakness for alcohol and women, he and Delbert were more alike than he would ever care to admit.

"Perhaps Gene's urgent need to take financial responsibility for an extended family of friends and business associates helped reassure him that he was the provider his father never was."

He gave at the office.

And everywhere else.

Back to index